On Thursday Nov. 10, “Pac and Biggie are Dead” debuted at Drexel University’s Mandell Theater as part of a collaboration between West Philadelphia’s Theatre in the X and the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design through their Professionals in Residence Project.
Written by playwright and Audelco-nominated actor Biko Eisen-Martin and directed by Co-Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Theatre in the X Carlo Campbell, “Pac and Biggie are Dead” is a self proclaimed spin-off of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” but broaches its complex theme of man’s struggles with identity with a fresh perspective.
“[Rosencrantz and Guildenstern] are trying to let Hamlet know who he is, but in real life, you never get to know who they are in the play. You just know they’re his homies,” said Campbell. The comparison between these two men and hip hop legends Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur is clear to Campbell.
“When I was younger, they were grown. But they were kids compared to grown men. To me as a young man…I thought they knew who they were. I didn’t know they were searching for who they were, I had no concept of that,” said Campbell. “To have these icons, these figures, these legends of culture and blackness be a part of this search, it was appropriate.”
After connecting with longtime friend Bisen-Martin in a South Philly cafe several years ago, Campbell became enamored with his concept, but actually performing the piece seemed unlikely for the small theater company.
‘Pac and Biggie were so massive we never thought to stage it, it required so much,” Campbell said.
But when presented with this opportunity from Drexel, he believed it was the perfect choice to show on a college campus.
“We’re doing this with young people around; we’re doing it at a college. Even though they’re not the age where they grew up with [Tupac and Biggie], they’re part of their growing up mythology,” said Campell. This production presents a unique opportunity and he sought to capitalize on its potential.
“I think there are inroads to a person who comes from the world of Tupac and Biggie or someplace adjacent to appreciate the idiosyncrasies and the nuance of what Tom Stoppard was doing in a way they would not appreciate in the context of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” said Campbell, viewing this as chance for those from all walks of life to experience something new together.
When asked what lies at the heart of this piece, Campbell responds simply. “Identity. Love…I’m always leery of boiling something down to something so low a denominator because it sounds cheesy…but it’s love. And so many things that vie to obscure that sensibility. To destroy that sensibility, that outlook, that pursuit. Money. Fame. Other people. And that’s what happened to those young men that were once friends and became separated.”
The final performance of “Pac and Biggie are dead” will run on Saturday Nov. 19 in the Mandell Theater.